Category Archives: story

The net of our days chasing the bird of our lives: relating stories to life


I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of plot and storytelling. I’ve been reading ancient (Aristotle’s time-honored Poetics) and contemporary (Benjamin Percy’s amazing Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction).

So it seems like a good time to dust off an essay from which I have quoted here before, C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” (which grew from a presentation in 1940 to a published essay in 1947). Like Lewis himself said, there’s more hope for someone who has never read a book than someone who has read it once and thinks he’s got it down. So re-reading him along with Aristotle and Percy, I hope, will help my fiction-writing-challenged brain better understand the basics and make new connections. (My graduate degree is in literary nonfiction.)

It’s been interesting to read Aristotle’s assumptions about real-world psychology as he dissects plot in general and tragedy in particular. (“Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.”) Considering relationships between our real lives and fictional stories, here’s a segment from Lewis’s “On Stories” I think is especially interesting because it offers a useful metaphor.

“It must be admitted that the art of Story as I see it is a very difficult one. What its central difficulty is I have already hinted when I complained that in the War of the Worlds the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way. I must now add that there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path. The titles of some stories illustrate the point very well. The Well at the World’s End—can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch and fix and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing the six words? Can a man write a story on Atlantis—or is it better to leave the word to work on its own? And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird….

“It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the ends….

“Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas—home-coming, reunion with a beloved—similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so — well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more?… The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I love the idea of seeking or reaching for something we kind of know, we almost see, we suspect is there, yet somehow evades us. With Lewis’s metaphor, the best aspirations of life could be the best accomplishments of stories. In life we want to achieve a qualitative state, and we hope to maintain it. (Most of us keep failing to catch it.) We go to the arts to experience a distilled version of a qualitative state. (Of any number of qualitative states.) We return to certain works of art because they do so well at allowing us to experience that distilled qualitative state again.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Lewis’s view of stories, including his former student turned friend John Wain, an acclaimed writer in his own right who would “frequent the Inklings.” Read Wain’s recollection of his differences with Lewis on the purpose of stories here.

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James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’


Two of the most-clicked posts on this blog have been Paul Holmer: How literature functions and Umberto Eco on theory and narrative. The common theme between the two might be that storytelling is not only necessary, but also of greater value than systematized and abstracted knowledge. Granted, the structure of Eco’s quotation seems to give priority to theorizing, but Holmer argues that humans learn more broadly and deeply from stories than from abstract or systematic knowledge.

So a quotation from James K.A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church,  found in this recent review, was a welcome addition to the theme:

“We were created for stories, not propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”

In this context, it’s probably worth remembering that beloved storyteller C.S. Lewis warned against systematizing the Bible.

Flash fiction Friday: ‘Appearance’


While my six-year-old son screamed, Christ appeared to my eyes. The Lord was behind my son, bare feet on the asphalt beside the jackknifed bicycle, staring down at the boy. God’s punctured skin pulsed like tidal rivulets. Now on my son’s broken forehead, little snakes of red slithered downward. My hand moved in small degrees, as if through heavy petroleum, to my son’s face. Christ vanished. The bicycle tire still spun at a racer’s pace.

© 2012 Colin Foote Burch

Flash-fiction Friday: ‘Small Flames’


My most recent attempt at the Press 53 53-word story contest:

Mort watched the overdressed couple. The man cooked beside the lake and served a candlelight dinner. Later, the couple disrobed and swam in the muddy water. Mort crept to the piles of clothes. He took the woman’s slip and worshipped it with sniffs. Leaving, he loosened the propane line on the man’s stove.

Read the actual winner here.

What are your favorite short stories?


Updated 3:15 p.m. July 1

I’m a former newspaper guy who studied literary nonfiction (a.k.a. creative nonfiction) for his graduate degree, a master of fine arts, not a master of arts in literature.

So that’s my disclaimer about these choices.

And please comment with your favorites, however many you have.

Of course, some of these choices come from textbooks I’ve used while teaching, while others come from unrequired reading.

Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald — one of my first short-story loves

“May Day” by F. Scott Fitzgerald — a relatively large cast of characters for a funny and devastating story

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver — the finest secular understanding of spiritual elevation

A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor — placing the Gospel message in the mouth of a criminal, while showing us the false facade of a Southern woman’s faith

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams — a taut, tight thriller of a short story written by a doctor who also was a leader in poetry’s Imagist movement

“Flight” by John Steinbeck — this vivid pursuit in arid lands has stuck with me for decades, literally

“Accident” by Dave Eggers — a relatively minor car accident becomes a meaningful look into the human condition

“Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace — tight, unflinching, horrific, with a deep symbolic move

“Bigfoot Stole My Wife” by Ron Carlson — a hysterical journey through denial and the basis for belief

“Powder” by Tobias Wolff — redeeming a mess of a Dad in the unlikeliest setting

“The School” by Donald Barthelme — creepy students seep through the oblivious narrator’s perspective

“Elephant Feelings” by John Haskell — an historically based look at an elephant who was executed

“The Schreuderspitze” by Mark Helprin — could a dream be better than an actual achievement?

“Letters from the Samantha” by Mark Helprin — a different kind of albatross

“Frontiers” by John M. Daniel — a 5-year-old on a new adventure, short and perfect (only 101 words)

My Kinsman, Major Molineux” by Nathaniel Hawthorne — striking images from the pre-Revolutionary era surround a boy’s journey from the country to the city, where he figures out his search for his kinsman is a joke at his expense

The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe — using kindness and a common interest to exact revenge

The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe — the godfather of the detective story gets started with a case of hiding in plain sight

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson — a psychologically astute (and horrific) use of the third-person-objective point of view

Tip Jar

The parable of the fire


The old man noticed a small ember, so he found some dry leaves and carefully placed them around the glow. He blew gently until a leaf began to sparkle and smoke.

Then, the old man leaned small twigs against each other, just above the smoking, sparkling dry leaf. Again, he blew gently. Another leaf began to sparkle, and now some of twigs smoked, too.

Finally, a tiny fire burned and crackled.

Yet now the old man’s time to attend the fire had come to an end, and a younger man was called to care for the flames.

The young man puzzled over the small fire. It was a fire, but it was too small. He thought the old man had not been passionate enough about building this fire. How was such a small fire going to be useful?

The young man, full of zeal, decided to build the tiny flames into a great fire. First, he gathered larger twigs, and also branches.

Then he kneeled down by the small fire. “The old man blew gently, but too gently,” he thought.

“If a small breeze will summon this fire,” he reasoned, “then a great wind will build the flames higher.”

So the young man inhaled deeply and blew into the little flames.

A black puff of smoke went up, and as the aired slowly cleared, the young man excitedly awaited to see a brighter blaze.

When the smoke was gone, the young man saw that the fire had been entirely extinguished, and not a single glowing ember remained.

Robert Fitzgerald on Flannery O’Connor, or a note on showing versus telling


When he spoke at Trinity-Myrtle Beach in earlier this month, Kendall Harmon in passing mentioned the need to cultivate the imagination. This morning, I read the beginning of Robert Fitzgerald’s introduction to Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. Fitzgerald wrote:

“Bearing hard upon motives and manners, her stories as moralities cut in every direction and sometimes go to the bone of regional and social truth. But we are not likely to state what they show as well as they show it…. We had better let our awareness of the knowledge in her stories grow quietly without forcing it, for nothing could be worse than to treat them straight off as problems for exegesis or texts to preach on.”

I want to put a spin on that “awareness” that Fitzgerald says should “grow quietly.” I think it grows quietly once it resides in the imagination. Mere information can fail human beings. A grand vision, seen through our imaginations and genuinely hoped-for in our hearts, can sustain us. What feeds that imagination and that hope? Often it is stories and figurative language — parables and metaphors that immerse us in a grand vision before we realize we have crossed into new territory. What grand vision has possessed your imagination?